Joseph Stearman

Impacted

I had my wisdom teeth taken out at age 27, and I guess many people would say that’s a little late in life. All four teeth were impacted and needed immediate withdrawal. And at 27 years old, I had no wife or girlfriend or even a friend to care for me after the surgery. So, I drove up three hours north to my Dad’s.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had all four wisdom teeth out at once, but it’s a rather unbearable situation. My father drove me back to our house with dark-red drool dripping out my mouth and tears falling down my face.

At home, my Dad gave me two ice packs which I held alongside both cheeks like a sandwich. I swallowed my prescription pain meds. I missed my old dog. I missed my mother – that’s why I didn’t visit him too often. It was too quiet, too bare.

“How about some Simpsons,” my dad suggested, setting down my Jell-O and pain pills on the coffee table. I made a sound of agreement, unable to fully form words.

He inserted the disc, but it didn’t read. He wiped the back of the DVD with his shirt and pushed it in the tray again. Unreadable. We always watched the Simpsons as a family. My dad muttered under his breath and stood still in front of the TV. He stared down at his feet and his back shuddered back and forth like a burnt-out motor – I knew he was crying. I hadn’t seen him weep since my mother’s funeral.

He whispered, “I should’ve taken better care of you, of your mother.”

I wanted to hug him, to tell him it was fine, but I was too high and hurt to move my legs or mouth.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” He asked over his shoulder.

“I can’t talk,” I blurted out in a loud, jumbled slur. My dad smiled at me, then laughed. He laughed hard, then I did too. I winced as each chuckle sent waves of pain across my jaw.

My dad wiped a tear away, smiling. “Settle down, son. I’ve got some old Schwarzenegger DVDs we can watch.”

And we did – we watched all those old DVDs. That week was most genuine time I had with my father in years.

Upon the Sea

He saw her on the rooftop. Cigarette smoke drifted from her lips, joining into the collection of late-night mist, or early morning fog that weaved through the city skyline.

He stood about ten feet from her, pulling out his last menthol from the crumpled pack. He fumbled in his pocket for his lighter, unable to grasp it. Damn.

“Nǐ yǒu dǎ huǒ jī ma?” he heard from his right. It was her, but he didn’t understand. The only Mandarin he knew was “nǐ hǎo” and “xiè xie.” The girl smiled – a smile that filled his chest with a surprising brightness. She held out a red plastic lighter and walked toward him.

“Dǎ huǒ jī,” she said. “It means lighter.” Her hair was short, black except for a sliver of dyed white that normally he would think looked seedy. But not on her. For some reason, he liked it on her.

“Xiè xie,” he mumbled. He took the lighter from her hand and lit the end of his last cigarette. She watched him complete the whole process with a curious, innocent smile. He looked down at her with raised eyebrows upon noticing this.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Somewhere in Europe,” he answered. “And I’m sorry, but I’d rather not talk about home.” He gazed into the foggy skyline. He figured she’d surely leave him alone after that comment. Idiot.

“Good,” she said. “I’ve grown tired of the same conversations anyway.” She leaned against the ridge next to him.

“Your English is very good,” he said.

“Yes. If your parents push you hard enough you will learn anything.” She paused for a moment. “I suppose I shouldn’t complain though.” She flicked the end of her cigarette off the building down into the hive. He watched it drift downward, gliding through the wind until he no longer could see it. He wasn’t sure what to say. A liquid drop fell toward the streets, chasing the fallen cigarette. He looked back at her. A single tear had trailed down her cheek.

It hurt him to see her cry. He had seen many people cry in his life – he could not explain why her tears affected him when countless others hadn’t. He had a sudden urge to hold her, to kiss this stranger from a place that felt so alien. He wanted to grab her hand and dance with her on the rooftop like he’d seen in those old films with his mother. At least once in his life he wanted to do these things – he wanted to with her, the woman whose name he did not know.

He crept his hand over to hers and held it, firstly with a soft hesitation, but then a comforting warmth.

She looked up at him, another tear rolling down her face. She was about to say something before the roof-door opened with a heavy clamor. A man cried out to her in Mandarin. She yelled something back, anger rising in her sharp voice. She moved her hand from under his, wiping away her tears. She smiled one more time.

“It was nice to meet you,” she said. She walked away.

He turned back toward the city, listening to the distant taxis, policemen blowing whistles, the hum of countless heaters and stoves, partiers on the prowl, and street-vendors crying for customers in the early dawn. He listened to all the harmonizing echoes that gave the city breath. He reached into his coat for another cigarette, then remembered he had none. He stayed on that roof for quite some time.

Joseph Stearman is a fiction writer whose work you can find in journals like Eunoia Review, Spank the Carp Magazine and others. Originally from Washington D.C., he now lives in Shanghai. To keep up with Joe, follow him on Instagram: ufojoe13